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Mixing US and China is step up for Shang-Chi action film
Film review

Mixing US and China is step up for Shang-Chi action film

by Maxwell DONALDSON 4 min. 26.11.2021
San Francisco bus sequence is perhaps one of the best fight scenes ever at the Marvel franchise
With Shang-Chi, Marvel adds to a stall that already includes Spiderman, the Avengers and Captain America
With Shang-Chi, Marvel adds to a stall that already includes Spiderman, the Avengers and Captain America
Photo credit: Shutterstock

A blend of Hollywood comic book blockbuster and Chinese martial arts film, Shang-Chi stands out as one of the best superhero films of 2021. Spider Man meets Ip Man, this is a finely balanced blend of skilfully choreographed fighting and big screen stunts.

The film, debuting on Disney+ last week, is one of the first Marvel productions to be truly bilingual: at least a quarter of the dialogue, and all narration, is in Chinese. The film explores grief, family, and cultural identity with a refreshing slant towards Eastern tradition. This mix of American and Chinese notions marks a serious step up for Marvel.

Perhaps the most outstanding moment is a fight scene on a San Francisco bus. The unremarkable protagonist ‘Shaun’ - aka Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) – is confronted by a hoard of black-clad, Kung-Fu kicking, ‘baddies’ on his morning commute to his job as a hotel valet.

As punches fly, Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy (Awkwafina) watches on, stunned by her old friend’s sudden display of fighting skills. Shang-Chi quickly deals with the rabble of attackers but then runs into a bigger issue:  a Romanian man-mountain with a prosthetic sword in place of his right forearm, aptly named ‘Razor Fist’. It is then that the screen comes alive with fast punches and a thumping soundtrack - ‘Run It’ by DJ Snake.

The scene pays homage to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan action movies - including a side-angle, slow motion, one-inch punch, and the use of a jacket for self-defence. As the bus hurtles uncontrollably down the hills of San Francisco, Peter Parker’s desperate bid to stop a train crash in Spiderman 2 also comes to mind. Where Shang-Chi differs, however, is in the fact that Katy is as much a part of stopping the bus as her power-imbued friend.

It is just one of the many ways that the film looks at gender roles with a critical eye. The exploration of Chinese family themes is tied up with a critique of the patriarchy in both hemispheres. Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is a talismanic figure of female empowerment. Time and again, the film shows her battling (in all senses) twice as hard as her male counterparts.

The most vivid example is when Xialing tells Katy that “if my Dad wasn’t going to let me into his empire, I was going to build my own”. These words foreshadow her eventual rise to take over the Ten Rings, after her father’s death. The very last scene of the film shows Razor First loyally awaiting the orders of Xialing, who is sitting on a throne. Before cutting to black, the camera pans out, revealing an army of women being trained to fight for the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi avoids any easy characterisation of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the supposed villain of the piece, is a complex and deeply human individual. He harbours an enduring, painful love for his deceased wife, and through the complicated father-son bond he has with Shang-Chi.

One of the most touching moments is when Wenwu captures Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing in Macau. He walks up to his son, pressing their foreheads together in a gesture reminiscent of the Maori ‘Hongi’. It is not only in this scene that Tony Leung’s performance stands a cut above the rest of the cast.

This is not to say that the acting elsewhere was subpar. Formerly an accountant at Deloitte, - something that will surely strike a chord in Luxembourg - Simu Liu has roared onto the big screen with his breakout, leading performance in Shang-Chi. The Chinese-born, Canadian actor showed his talent on countless fronts, showing emotional depth, serious stunt skills, and humour. Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley both stood out as sources of levity and fun. Ronny Chieng’s limited appearances as Jon Jon also stood out for their light-heartedness.

For all the praise that can be heaped upon Shang-Chi, there were some things left to be desired. The plot has a fragmented tendency, which made the film feel longer than it actually was. The chopping and changing of setting, villains and heroes, and secondary characters gave the whole thing a lack of clear anchoring. Another shortcoming is the final battle, which abandons the hypnotising martial arts displays in favour of a typical Marvel battle. This begs the question: how will Shang-Chi fit into future MCU films?

For many other superhero films, shortcomings such as these would be a damning indictment. But Shang-Chi remains a great addition to the Marvel canon. The film is dedicated to Brad Allan, the supervising stunt coordinator who died before the film was released. Allan’s work on the film, alongside that of fight coordinator Andy Cheng, is a fitting addition to his legacy. The Shang-Chi bus sequence in particular will stand out as perhaps one of the best fight scenes in the history of the Marvel franchise.


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